British Folk Art – The Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Right, I’ve decided to out myself – I’m a quilter. A very cack-handed, painfully slow and sporadically committed one, but a quilter nonetheless. My oeuvre up to now includes a crazed, patchwork version of the Shard on a cushion cover for an architect friend; a startlingly wonky scrap that’s just about discernable as the union jack which my lucky sister received with a politely frozen smile last Christmas, and my very own rendition of a cow jumping over the moon for a friend’s child who will most likely reach the age of majority before I finish the blasted thing.
I’ve always liked to think that my secret hobby places me firmly at the end of a long line of peculiarly British ‘folk art’ practitioners, albeit one not that likely to have been selected by the Tate’s curators to be part of this unprecedented, fascinating survey of a hugely under-represented genre that they admit is virtually impossible to really define. Indeed, it’s that very democracy – the sense of almost lost, eccentric genius from the last seven centuries finally being given the artistic kudos it deserves – that proves to be one of the joys of this wonderful exhibition of the humorous, the mysterious and the downright weird. There’s a hell of a lot more to it all than corn dollies and shoddy knitting.
Most of the objects on show here were made by anonymous or completely unknown artists or craftspeople, both individually and collectively. In fact, the only figure here I had previously heard of – Alfred Wallis, the retired sailor-turned-painter so championed as a ‘primitivist’ star by the St Ives modernists in the early 20th century – is shown to have been far from unique. There are plenty of other innocently rendered paintings and incredibly beguiling wool works portraying ships and harbours in a huge range of styles, all dug out from large and small museum collections from all over the UK. Many of them just as good if not better than Wallis’ wonky oils – my favourites are the ones that feature materials more traditionally used by marine artisans such as bone and straw. Ben Nicholson’s favourite self-taught artist looks positively stuffy in comparison.
Picking highlights from such an eclectic selection of truly idiosyncratic objects is virtually impossible (unusually, everyone I’ve spoken to who’s visited seems to have resonated with a different object and its imagined author) but there are a few pieces here that really stuck in my mind. The enigmatic Gods in a bottle traditionally made by the Irish diaspora, featuring what could be abstracted crucifixes suspended in bottles of liquid, are theatrically lit from below, emphasising their intensely cryptic strangeness. Tim Burton’s art director would be proud. Every quilt on display is compelling in its own way too – for me it’s the soldiers’ quilts that fascinate the most. The image of hundreds of injured military painstakingly piecing thousands of scraps of fabric together to create beautifully resonant textile works is one that isn’t easily shaken, not least for the realisation that thousands of men poured themselves into such stereotypically women’s crafts in an exercise in early art therapy. The selection of embroidered maps showing how various, working class women of the early 19th century envisioned the British isles are also endlessly enticing in their own way (though I am a self-confessed cartophile).
You just wouldn’t be surprised to find a striking proportion of these pieces in the most contemporary exhibition: the carved Bangor slates with their dotted, spiral patterns that could so easily have been sourced straight from a land art collection; three foot long, heavily worked leather boots and giant top hats that seem (to my eyes which are admittedly much more attuned to contemporary practice) to have been lifted from any current sculpture show, but were actually shop signs back in the seventeenth century; and ship’s figureheads that would sit quite happily next to a Jeff Koons or Richard Prince. Indeed, these last objects were some of the first to be recontextualised as sculpture after their ocean-going days came to an end – many of them were polished up, enthusiastically and cartoonishly repainted, and stuck on funny stick legs ready for display. The gaudy hyperreality of the gargantuan moustached man from the HMS Calcutta; the voluptuous Victorian lady, the clumsily painted jolly mariner et al make this room the most immediately impactful of the show – the masters of 20th century appropriation would no doubt be a little bit jealous.
I must admit that most of the contact I’ve ever had with ‘folk art’ objects is as source material or inspiration for contemporary artists: Grayson Perry’s quilts and pots used as pointed commentaries on 21st century Britain, for example, or Jeremy Dellar and Alan Kane’s celebration of them in their 2005 Folk Archive. Many of the works here, though, are easily as captivating and insightful about the age they sprung from as any of the contemporary works that have sought to subvert them. It’s made me ask all sorts of questions about what I choose to view and how easily ideas about high and low art can be twisted and messed with – a must for anyone with a desire to shake up their ideas of what the history of art in this country really constituted.